Hidden Treasures

By Bernard Wood
October 30, 2015
At the beginning of the year we moved into a splendid new building called the Science and Engineering Hall1. This involved moving my books, reprints and files after many evenings and weekends going through old-fashioned paper files and culling what was not strictly necessary. Thanks to one of our graduate students, Eve Boyle, my books are much better organized now than they have ever been!
 
When you spend hours packing and unpacking books from boxes it is difficult to resist the temptation to stop and open them. Two categories of book especially caught my interest, books that I had forgotten I possessed and books that are difficult to classify. This blog is about one of the latter2.
 
It is a collection of essays assembled in 1987 under the aegis of the Eugenics Society to mark the centenary of the birth of Julian Huxley. Huxley, the grandson of T.H. Huxley and brother of novelist Aldous Huxley, was a polymath, and the scope of these essays conveys the breadth and depth of his many interests. These days he would be called a public intellectual, and he fulfilled that role as one of the original members of a distinctive BBC radio program called the Brains Trust3. One of the editors of the volume, Geoffrey Harrison, is a biological anthropologist who will be known to many of you. The other, Milo Keynes, the nephew of the economist Maynard Keynes, was a surgeon cum anatomist cum historian. Keynes died in 2009, but Harrison is still very much alive. The nine essays are augmented by the text of Huxley’s Galton Lecture delivered to the Eugenics Society in 1962, a chronologically ordered list of the major events in his life, and a “select bibliography”.
 
David Hubback’s essay about Julian Huxley’s connection with, and enthusiasm for, Eugenics helped me understand this movement better than I did previously. But even though Eugenics was espoused by people I admire, including Huxley, I cannot shake off my intense discomfort when reading the text of his Galton Lecture. Eugenics – literally “good genes” or “well-born”– was the brainchild of Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin. The aim of the Eugenics movement was to develop social and other mechanisms to improve the modern human gene pool by encouraging individuals with “good” genes to reproduce, and to discourage, or prohibit, reproduction by individuals judged to have “bad’ genes. Huxley’s intentions may have been good, but Eugenics is so tarnished by its historical associations and subjective judgments about gene quality that, at least for me, no amount of intellectual justification cuts the mustard. Some claim that genetic counseling of individuals is the modern day manifestation of Eugenics, but to my mind anguished judgments made by individual parents are a far cry from large-scale social policy. Despite my misgivings, Eugenics has proved appealing to some very smart people (e.g., Ernst Mayr and Francis Crick). 
 
 
Mercifully, the rest of the book deals either with Huxley’s influential involvement with the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), or with topics that he contributed to, or was interested in, during his career as a research biologist. Huxley, who was a consummate synthesizer and popularizer of science, is probably best known for two books, Problems of relative growth (1932) and Evolution, the modern synthesis (1942), and for coining the terms cline (1938) and grade (1958).
 
Julian Huxley shared a father with the distinguished physiologist, Andrew Huxley, but they were 30 years apart in age. As Andrew Huxley writes in his biographical essay, “he was more like an uncle to me than a brother” (p. 9). John Durant and E.B. Ford review and provide historical context for Huxley’s contributions to evolutionary studies. Bryan Clarke’s essay on evolution since Huxley’s time is an excellent, clearly thought out and well-written analysis of research problems that still preoccupy evolutionary biologists. It is one of the best essays in the collection, and it could, with profit, be read by the students of today. Robin Dunbar does a fine job of highlighting Huxley’s ethological research contributions.
 
Tom Kemp suggests that the fossil record is the only way we have of “directly testing a theory of evolution” (p. 81). He uses as an example data about freshwater mollusks collected in the Turkana Basin (Williamson, 1981).  I spent several weeks in the field with the Peter while he was collecting his samples. Spending a day in the field with Peter was not without risk. He had a morbid fear of lions and he would never leave camp without a Molotov cocktail in his knapsack. Having witnessed him lighting and throwing one of these at what turned out to be a gerenuk scuttling through the undergrowth, I began to fear these projectiles more than the lions. Kemp’s review of the various explanations of the phenotypic history of the Turkana mollusks is exemplary. He touches on two speciation scenarios, Peter Williamson’s notion of rapid speciation, and speciation caused by episodes of intense selection imposed on long periods of stasis caused by stabilizing selection. The other two explanations, ecophenotypic change and ecological displacement, do not involve speciation. Kemp’s essay could apply equally well to hominin evolution.
 
Essays of particular interest to a paleoanthropologist include Bob Martin’s excellent review of scaling, and Michael Day’s survey of the relationships among australopith taxa and the impact of fossil discoveries in Africa on our understanding of Homo erectus. The former would be an excellent piece to assign to students learning about allometry, and the latter provides a clear and careful review of the state of play about relationships in the later stages of the hominin clade in the late 1980s. It is also perhaps the first recognition that Homo habilis and Australopithecus africanus “solved the mechanical problems of bipedalism in very similar, if not completely identical, ways” (p. 145). Geoffrey Harrison reviews the evidence for human geographical variation, Patrick Bateson focuses on Huxley’s 1943 Romanes lecture about evolutionary ethics, and Armytage exposes the birth-pangs of UNESCO plus the political machinations surrounding Huxley’s appointment as its first Director General.
 
Two things strike me about this volume. First, how well written most of the essays are, and how relevant they remain. Second, just how much Huxley achieved and bequeathed to those of us interested in reconstructing evolutionary history. But these contributions came at a cost, for throughout his life he suffered from episodes of depression. In his autobiography4 Huxley claims he inherited his malady from his maternal grandfather, Tom Arnold, the headmaster of the school that gave its name to rugby football. But he also had a family history on his father’s side because his paternal grandfather, T.H. Huxley, was also prone to periods of “nervous exhaustion” during which he had to take to his bed and forego the income he generated from teaching. During these times Huxley’s friends, including Charles Darwin, would pass round the hat and collect money for Huxley’s wife to help her maintain the household.
 
We counsel our younger colleagues that they should not waste their time publishing in edited volumes such as this, but our discipline would be the poorer if they did not exist. My general experience is that contributions to edited volumes are not cited as often as papers in refereed journals, but there are some notable exceptions such as the volume Fred Grine edited about the “robust” australopithecines5.
 
Perhaps we need to have the discipline of regularly delving into the history of our subject. For every ten contemporary papers I read, maybe I should browse my bookshelves and remind myself of what has gone before.
 
Remember George Santyana’s warning -- “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. 
 
 
2 Evolutionary Studies (1989) (Eds. Milo Keynes and G. Ainsworth Harrison), London:  Macmillan, pp. 1-256. ISBN 0-333-45723-4
 
 
Memories (1970) Huxley, J.H., London: George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04- 925006 X
 
Evolutionary History of the “Robust” Australopithecines (1988) (Ed. Frederick E.  Grine), New York, Aldine de Gruyter. pp. 1-527.
 
Huxley, J.S. (1932) Problems of relative growth. New York: Dial Press.
 
Huxley, J.S. (1938) ‘Clines: an auxiliary taxonomic principle’. Nature, 142: 219-220.
 
Huxley, J.S. (1942) Evolution: the modern synthesis. London: George Allen & Unwin. 
 
Huxley, J.S. (1958) ‘Evolutionary processes and taxonomy with special reference to  grades’. Uppsala Univ. Arrsk., 6: 21-39.
 
Williamson, P.G. (1981) ‘Palæontological documentation of speciation in Cenozoic  molluscs from Turkana Basin’. Nature, 293: 437-443.